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Authorities in Papua New Guinea search for safer ground for thousands of landslide survivors

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Authorities in Papua New Guinea were searching on Wednesday for safer ground to relocate thousands of survivors at risk from a potential second landslide in the South Pacific country’s highlands, while the arrival of heavy earth-moving equipment at the disaster site where hundreds are buried has been delayed, officials said.

Emergency responders say that up to 8,000 people might need to be evacuated as the mass of boulders, earth and splintered trees that crushed the village of Yambali in the nation’s mountainous interior on Friday becomes increasingly unstable.

But an evacuation center near Yambali in Enga province only had room for about 50 families, said Justine McMahon, country director for the humanitarian agency CARE International.

“For the number of people that they anticipate having to help, they actually need more land and I understand the authorities are trying to identify places now,” McMahon said.

Enga provincial disaster committee chairperson and provincial administrator Sandis Tsaka told The Associated Press he would not know how many villagers had been evacuated until late Wednesday.

The unstable ground was also impacting the humanitarian response, said Kate Forbes, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

“Right now, the issue is, I understand, … safety and access,” Forbes told reporters in Manila in the Philippines.

“We have to be sure that the land is somewhat stabilized before we can send our workers in to a great deal of extent,” she added.

Chris Jensen, country director for the children-focused charity World Vision, feared excavation machinery could trigger a second landslide.

“While we want to get some heavy moving equipment in there to try and get through these meters and meters of rock and earth, we are really concerned that we could be making things worse,” Jensen told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

World Vision staff visited the disaster area on Tuesday to assess needs. Jensen noted tribal warfare that has been rife throughout the province for generations posed another threat to establishing a World Vision presence.

“Very, very challenging circumstances and from my perspective, I’m really making sure that my staff are safe,” Jensen said.

The United Nations estimated 670 villagers died in the disaster that immediately displaced 1,650 survivors. Papua New Guinea’s government has told the United Nations it thinks more than 2,000 people were buried. Six bodies had been retrieved from the rubble by Tuesday.

Papua New Guinea’s military earth-moving equipment had been expected to arrive at the scene on Tuesday after traveling from the city of Lae, 400 kilometers (250 miles) to the east. But that plan changed when a bridge between the Enga provincial capital Wabag and the nearest major airstrip at Mount Hagen collapsed late Monday for reasons that have yet to be explained.

A detour adds two or three hours to the journey for aid convoys taking supplies to Mount Hagan to the devastated village. It also has prevented the heavy equipment being trucked from Lae.

Five to 10 heavy earth-moving machines were now expected to be on the scene by Thursday, the Papua New Guinea Defense Force said.

A team of 40 military engineers and medical staff reached Wabag on Tuesday night and made the two-hour drive to Yambali on Wednesday. The province’s main highway remains blocked by the landslide beyond Yambali.

The team has begun negotiating with the villagers for permission to start digging.

Traumatized villagers are divided over whether heavy machinery should be allowed to dig up and potentially further damage the bodies of their buried relatives.

An excavator donated by a local builder Sunday became the first piece of heavy earth-moving machinery brought in to help villagers who have been digging with shovels and farming tools to find bodies.

The Australian air force was flying 750 family-sized shelters to the region as well as generators, water purification kits and ofther supplies, Australian Pacific Minister Pat Conroy said.

“We’re moving absolutely as quickly as humanly possible,” Conroy said.

Papua New Guinea is a diverse, developing nation with 800 languages and 10 million people who are mostly subsistence farmers.

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Associated Press writer Jim Gomez and and video journalist Joeal Calupitan in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report

By ROD McGUIRK
Associated Press

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